Featured Artist: Ty (May 2020)

With the sad news of his death in May at the age of 47 from Covid-19 complications, this month's featured artist article focuses on the rapper Ty. A familiar face in UK hip-hop since the mid-1990s and still active right up until his death both solo and as part of the supergroup Kingdem. For many, he will be remembered for his time with Big Dada records in the early 2000s, but continued to release solid recordings after leaving the label. Throughout his career, he developed a reputation as a rapper with a knack for clever storytelling with a self analytical angle, who was willing to collaborate with musicians and artists of all styles.

Ty grew up in Brixton, South London in the 1980s, the son of Nigerian parents in a predominantly Caribbean community both of which clearly had an influence on the music he released. He began recording music in the mid-1990s, with his first appearance coming on the 1994 Tings a Gwan! album alongside IG Culture and Mikey Supa with the track 3 Da Hard Way. The following year Ty would co-found Ghetto Grammar, which organised spoken word and poetry workshops and was something of a pioneer organisation in hip-hop education in the UK. Towards the end of the decade he formed a duo with DJ Shortee Blitz, who released a few tracks together including Zones and Shortee's Theme in 1997 and the excellent I.A.A.D. in 1998. These caught the attention of Big Dada owner Will Ashton, with Ty joining the label in 2000.

Ty's debut album, Awkward appeared in 2001, delivering a series of tracks that showed a talent for storytelling with a backdrop seeped in boom-bap hip-hop with a jazzy twist. The album earned him a cult audience, many of whom have followed him throughout his career. It would be his second album, though, that would be his most successful. Upwards, released in 2003 reached number 35 in the UK album charts and would earn him a 2004 Mercury Prize nomination the following year. Unfortunately he would lose out to Franz Ferdinand; but tracks such as Oh U Want More? and Wait a Minute presented a hybrid hip-hop style incorporating aspects such as African rhythm beats (Fela Kuti-associated drummer Tony Allen featured on the album) and jazz alongside the hip-hop backbone, presenting an album that still sounds strong 17 years later.

The rapper's third and last album on Big Dada, Closer, appeared in 2006, bringing together a strong cast of collaborators from the US such as De la Soul, Speech from Arrested Development, Bahamadia and Zion I, showcasing his growing reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately for the rapper the album didn't reach the levels of Upwards, but was still a solid album with some great tracks including This Hear Music and Don't Watch That that showed a maturing rapper in his element and holding his own with some US greats. Ty would go on to leave Big Dada a year later, citing a perceived lack of interest from the label in what he wanted to release. He would experiment with spoken word for a period and collaborated with a range of artists, such as Japanese act Tettory Bad and bridged the UK hip-hop-grime divide by working a range of artists on the 2007 remix of Bashy's Black Boys. He returned in 2010 with a new album as Special Kind of Fool was released on the label Barely Breaking Even. His fourth album was a much more soulful affair, combining melody drenched choruses with the uncompromising raps that were to be expected from Ty.

His final album, A Work of Heart arrived in 2018 on the jazz label Jazz re:freshed, featuring some of London's best jazz artists in a return to the jazz infused hip-hop sound that had come to define his earlier work. Alongside the political and autobiographical lyrics, this all came together to create something that sounds both positive and life affirming while also pertinent and hard hitting. In 2019 Ty would join forces with other veterans of UK hip-hop, in Rodney P and Blak Twang, to form the supergroup Kingdem. The group released their self-titled EP that same year and toured the country as the legends of UK hip-hop.

The sad passing of Ty has robbed UK hip-hop of a legendary MC, who perhaps never really got the commercial recognition his talents deserved. Nevertheless, he was well respected as both a rapper and a person and played a big role in the development of hip-hop in the UK. He developed a career whose longevity was born out of an honesty and originality in his music. Outside of music he was often a mentor for Brixton's creative community and was involved in Akala's hip-hop Shakespeare project right up until he died.